The European Commission should be basking in the glory of having finally, after seven torturous years, signed the EU free trade deal with Canada. Instead, it finds itself mired in a mess entirely of the making of its own commissioners.
Rather than enjoying the afterglow of a Sunday visit to Brussels by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the commission spent Monday stonewalling questions about the future of its digital policy chief, the German politician Gunther Oettinger, who used a speech on Friday to make a series of ill-judged jokes about gay marriage, the Chinese and former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s separation from his wife.
It also published a report exonerating former Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso for taking a lobbying job with Goldman Sachs, although it did question his judgement.
The commission had referred Barroso to an “independent ad hoc ethics committee” after outrage greeted the news that the former Portuguese president would advise the US investment bank on Brexit.
Goldman Sachs is hated by many EU officials for its part in the financial crisis, which hit when Barroso led the Commission. Bureaucrats were so furious, they started a petition demanding exemplary measures against the Portuguese.
Meanwhile, Oettinger, Germany’s commissioner, was facing calls for his resignation in Brussels and Berlin, after giving a speech which was secretly filmed and leaked online on Thursday in which he referred to the Chinese as “slitty-eyed”, and described a recent visit by Chinese ministers to the commission as: “Nine men, one party, no democracy. No female quota, and no women – which follows logically.”
Unlike Germany, China does not have quotas for women in top jobs. The remark was interpreted as meaning women needed quotas to be successful. For good measure, Oettinger suggested that German lawmakers would soon make gay marriage compulsory.
It isn’t the first time the 63-year-old CDU veteran has slipped up verbally. In 2006, a German language association handed the centre-right Swabian a gong for “particularly notable mistakes in dealing with the German language”.
When he was energy commissioner under the Barroso administration, he suggested that the flags of heavily indebted countries should be flown at half mast outside EU buildings as a punishment.
And in 2013, the former minister-president of Baden-Württemberg, told a conference of German, Belgian and Luxembourgish business leaders that he was worried about “essentially ungovernable” countries such as Bulgaria, Romania and Italy.
After the EU referendum, Oettinger memorably told another conference; “We have to accept the democratic decision and the shit campaign of Cameron.”
Despite this latest gaffe sparking accusations of racism, the commission on Friday announced it was handing Oettinger a promotion. He is to assume the budget portfolio after Bulgaria’s commissioner Kristalina Georgieva resigned to take a job at the World Bank. The EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker decided to give Oettinger the job, raising him up a rank to that of vice-president.
Oettinger doubled down on his blunder on Monday by retweeting a German news story about the scandal headlined, “Accusations of racism? That’s our Oetti”.
The Hamburger Morgenpost was less forgiving. “Racist and homophobic; Oettinger in mega-political s**tstorm,” was its headline.
Yesterday in the German parliament, the head of the Die Linke (Left) party, Dietmar Bartsch, called on Angela Merkel to “withdraw this man from Brussels.”
As the scandal gathered steam, the German Chancellor gave Oettinger a vote of confidence. Her spokesman said she had “full trust” in him. Some Berlin-watchers immediately pointed out that phrase had been used by Merkel about a number of domestic ministers, who had ultimately resigned.
In Brussels, German Green MEP Jan-Phillip Albrecht said, “This is the moment when EU leaders can prove that they won’t let someone like Trump become or stay a top decision-maker.”
There was growing speculation yesterday evening that the comments could at least cost Oettinger the promotion, if not his place on the commission. But in an excruciating press briefing in Brussels, the commission refused four times to apologise for Oettinger’s comments.
The commissioner himself defended his comments, which he said were “sloppy” but not racist, in a German newspaper interview over the weekend.
“We have nothing to add to the interview,” the Commission’s chief spokesman said.
Asked whether there would be an investigation for racist and homophobic language, he said, “We do not have an FBI at the European Commission.”
The spokesman confirmed that Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had not spoken to Oettinger because he was “100 per cent focused” on the trade deal with Canada. The deal’s signing ceremony had been delayed because Belgium’s backing was threatened by opposition from the French-speaking region of Wallonia.
In a separate speech before Sunday’s signing, Oettinger described Wallonia as a “micro-region ruled by communists”, sparking a furious reaction from Belgian politicians and press.
Paul Magnette, the minister-president of Wallonia, said, “Will the European Commission be as tough against racist homophobes like Oettinger as they were against those who defended transparency and democracy?”
These scandals come at a particularly sensitive time — harming an institution already badly damaged by Brexit, the migration crisis, Greece, Luxleaks, unprecedented EU euroscepticism, and years of stubbornly high youth unemployment.
It is also playing up to the worst stereotypes of EU officialdom being out of touch, elitist and arrogant.
The commission is quick to insist on the importance of “European values” such as tolerance and transparency, but it needs to do more to ensure its officials practice what it preaches.
James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.